A murder with no witnesses, no motive and no suspects turns up only one lead: the prolific author of a series of novels with a devoted fanbase of middle-aged women, whose murder-mystery stories about dashing private investigator ‘Red Knight’ seem to have a lot in common with the unsolved case. Detective Hannah Carter wants nothing to do with the suave author’s strange world, but he might have other ideas.
Calvin was an only child. His dad went away one day and never came back. Mom said he went to war, but Calvin was a precocious kid and he didn’t buy it. Still, things were okay. He’d sit on the porch, thinking up stories, watching the sky. It was a huge sky; an unbroken dome of brilliant powder-blue, except when there was a scattering of white fluffy clouds, or sunset of course, when it looked like two-thirds of the universe had been splashed with blood, or when a storm was coming and the angry grey clouds boiled over the horizon like soldiers marching to battle. Mostly though it was blue, massive and perfect. As far as he could see in every direction were flat, Nebraska cornfields. A stripe of yellow-gold underneath that blue infinity, with the red barn over to the right and a creaking windmill just beyond it. That was the limit of his early world but, as he grew, he’d go off exploring. Down to the creek a few miles down the dirt track, or out past the Jenkins’s place. They had a farm too, but instead of a lonely mom and her little boy, they had a whole house full of people. Calvin became aware of some of them when he was maybe four or five, and he was walking out past their gate. Two of the Jenkins girls came and talked to him. They were a little older than him and he didn’t really understand what they said, but they seemed to find it pretty funny. When they wouldn’t stop laughing at his bemused look, he ran back home and told his mom.
“You stay away from those girls,” mom told him angrily. “You got nothin’ to say to no girls, you hear? You talk to girls, the Devil’ll come an’ take you away, understand?”
Calvin knew about the Devil from church. Church was the only other place they went for the first six years of his life. The preacher told them all about the Devil and, when they got home, mom made sure the lesson sank in.
“You a good boy, Calvin,” she said, “but the Devil wants to take you away from me. He wants to drag you down to the fires of Hell. You gotta be good. You do as your momma tells you, you don’t give me no sass, you stay away from girls. Girls gonna lead you to Hell, Calvin. They gonna lead you away from your momma an’ straight to the Devil.”
Calvin emerged from childhood with only a dim idea of who God and Jesus were, but a very, very firm conviction about the Devil and his interests in little boys.
Adolescence was harder. He went to school in the town, studied diligently, and tried to stay away from girls. But he was already starting to chafe at the boundaries of his little world. It seemed cruel for the horizons to be so expansive when the walls imposed on him were so restrictive. Inevitably, his thoughts would turn to the Jenkins girls and, terrified though he was of them, one night he started to think about them a lot and he found himself reaching into his pyjama pants because it really felt like something he ought to try and, after a few minutes of furtive twitching, so it proved.
It seemed like a wonderful secret about his body that he’d discovered until mom came to wash the sheets, and then he was informed in no uncertain terms that this particular activity was another thing the Devil would take him away for. “You got a sickness in you, Calvin,” she told him sternly, “if I ever find out you done that again, I’ll strap you bloody. It’s for your own good, boy. You think the Devil don’t see your ugly thoughts? You think he don’t know what’s in your filthy head? He knows what you are, Calvin. He got his beady red eye on you, an’ if you sin like that again, you gonna burn, y’hear?”
He was out by the creek one day after that when one of the Jenkins girls, the one closest to his age, tried to talk to him. “I seen you at school,” she said, “an’ on the bus. How comes you ain’t talk?” He shook his head and ran away from her as fast as he could. But that night, he couldn’t stop himself from sinning again. Afterwards he tried to hide the evidence with a damp cloth, scrubbing as quietly as he could in the dark, but mom woke up and found him. She wasn’t a woman to make idle threats, and Calvin couldn’t sit comfortably for days afterwards. He learned his lesson though: he didn’t even so much as glance at any of the Jenkins girls again.
When he was thirteen, another boy at school brought in a deck of cards his brother had brought back from New York. On the face cards, instead of the usual kings, queens and jacks were pictures of naked women. The cards were passed around the classroom like contraband, exchanged for candy or even real currency, saved up from weeks of allowances. Calvin knew he shouldn’t be interested, because of the Devil and all, but he couldn’t resist and swapped his lunch money for one with a dark-haired woman leering seductively at him, the jack of clubs, allegedly. He stared in fascination at her body, at her brown nipples and the black mound of hair between her legs. The idea of her posing for a photographer like that seemed impossibly erotic. He hid it in his school bag and took it home with him, utterly terrified that it would be discovered. He managed to keep the playing card secret for seven blissful months, taking it out of the hiding place he’d made for it behind a lose bit of skirting board in his bedroom only when his hormones reached a raging fever pitch. He’d try to fight it as hard as he could, resisting for weeks at a time until, when he was unable to think of anything else, he’d steal across his bedroom in the middle of the night, creeping like a burglar, hardly daring to breathe, erection straining urgently against his pyjamas to kneel at the loose board and slide it aside inch by agonising inch to retrieve the precious card. Then back to the bed as quickly as possible, a few minutes of desperate, furtive rubbing, all conducted with the same baited breath as the trek across the room had been and then the agonising rush of release followed immediately by an all-consuming shame and fear.
Those were always the worst moments. Not only because Calvin was certain that the Devil would of course have seen everything, and was even now licking his scaled lips in anticipation of dragging this tearful, sticky boy off to Hell to be tortured forever, but because now he had to plan how he was going to clean everything up and, worse, make the same heart-stopping journey back to the hiding place and replace the card carefully in the nest of scrunched up newspaper he’d made for it. It was all the worse because this time there was no promise of long-delayed pleasure, just the horrible dampness all over his crotch, the mounting fear and self-disgust, the snivelling wretchedness of this shameful display. Every time, he wanted to throw the hateful playing card, emblazoned with its salacious, exotic beauty, away forever. Maybe take it to the creek, tear it into pieces and throw them into water to be gobbled up by the fish. But he couldn’t imagine standing there in broad daylight (as he’d never be able to leave the house at night) with the card in his hands. What if someone saw? What if the preacher or, worse, mom, happened to be passing and they saw him with it in his hand and knew what he was and what he did? He couldn’t even entertain the notion. Also, he knew that in just a few days the burning desire to look at it again would grow in him and, if he destroyed it, he’d regret it forever. So, pathetically, he crept back across the room and put the forbidden card back, then took off his befouled pyjamas and hid them near the back of his drawers before selecting a fresh pair. When laundry day came, he had to go through another military-style operation that involved sneaking the dirty ones into the basket when mom wasn’t looking.
He should have known it couldn’t last. Mom was smart. She looked at him one morning after one of his midnight adventures and then narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why’d you change your jammies, Calvin?”
“You went to bed in your red’uns. How comes you changed ’em?”
“You callin’ your momma a liar, Calvin?”
It was really only a matter of time then. She waited up for him and peeked through the keyhole. When he went to his secret place behind the skirting, she flung the door open and caught him in the act of retrieving the card.
“I didn’t raise you to bring filthy pornography into this house, boy!” she screamed, holding the card at arm’s length like it was a rattlesnake that might jump out of her hand and bite her at any second. Calvin cowered on the floor at her feet, erection well and truly withered. “This is disgusting! I thought I taught you better’n this! What I done to deserve such a wicked, sinful boy? I told you the Devil’d find you, Calvin an’ it looks like he got to you already an’ filled your head with his evil! You goin’ to the fire for sure, boy!”
She burnt the card and then she beat him until he bled, and that was the end of his secret acts of self-abuse.
Detective Carter ducked under the police tape and took off her shades as she went from bright sunshine to the dim interior of the barn. The smell was the first thing she noticed and, despite telling herself she was used to this kind of thing, she still felt her stomach lurch. She waved a hand in front of her face. “Fuckin’ bugs…”
“It’s August and about a hundred fuckin’ degrees, Hannah. The hell did you expect?” Jones, her partner, lumbered into the barn after her, looking not at all put out by the scene of carnage.
“Don’t get smart with me, Ray,” she murmured as she circled the scene of the crime. There were a few beat cops standing around, keeping watch, but they were all carefully avoiding looking at the corpse. She wished she had that luxury.
“This is messed up,” Jones said, through a mouthful of taco.
“How do you do that?” she asked him incredulously.
“Do what?” Crumbs sprayed everywhere.
“At the very least, you’re going to contaminate the scene, asshole.”
He swallowed. “I said ‘fuck you’!”
“Whatever,” she grinned. She squatted down and tilted her head to try to make sense of the ruin of a human being that had been left behind. “Who would do this?”
“Some psycho.” Jones didn’t seem very interested in what was going on, but she knew that was just his style. He finished his lunch and walked around so he was standing opposite her. “Female, I guess.”
“Yeah.” It was hard to tell, given the brutality of the murder. “Looks middle-aged, but I’m just basing that on what’s left of her clothes.”
“On the way.” Carter ran a hand through her shoulder-length hair and calmed her breathing. “Looks ritualistic. Are those symbols carved into her…into her skin?”
“Don’t puke, Hannah,” Jones chided. “But yeah, looks like some religious shit to me. What’s the story?”
Carter looked around. “We need to get a positive ID, but assuming this is the owner…a Mrs Botham…lived here alone. Widow.”
“Isolated place,” Jones observed, “I’d guess this prick is long gone.”
“Pretty much.” Carter got back to her feet and put her hands on her hips. “Jesus. I’ve seen some fucked up shit, but this has got to take the damn cake.”
“You think this is worse’n that time in Palm Springs?”
“At least that fucker put up some plastic sheeting before he took out the hacksaw.”
“I don’t think this fella was that concerned about cleaning up after himself.” He took a look around the barn. There was barely a wall or beam that wasn’t spattered with blood. “She got any kids?”
“No idea.” She turned to one of the beat cops. “You know if she got any kids, pal?”
“Don’t think so, detective,” he shrugged.
“Good,” Jones said.
“‘Cause it means some asshole lawyer is gonna have to deal with this mess.”
They walked back out into the daylight. Carter put her shades back on and put her hands behind her head. The barn was built on a ridge, a beautiful spot overlooking a lush green valley in the Little San Bernardino Mountains. On one side, the grey-orange blur of the Mojave Desert stretched out to the horizon and, on the other, rolling hills rising to low mountains and, in the distance beyond them, the grey smog of Los Angeles smearing the flawless blue sky. It was heartbreaking after what they’d just seen. “What do you think?” she asked her partner.
“I think we got our work cut out for us.”
“C’mon. You think this was someone who knew her?”
“Nah. Too opportunistic.” He gestured out at the landscape. “It’s perfect, y’know?”
Carter didn’t think he meant that the same way she might. “Perfect?”
“Long way from any towns. Where’s the closest place? Yucca Valley? No other farms for miles. Maybe he scouts it out, but I don’t think he knew her as anything more’n his next victim. He sees she’s alone, vulnerable. Maybe he ingratiates himself, I guess.”
“We’ll have to ask her neighbours. See if she was entertaining any new friends recently.”
“Yeah.” He looked back at the barn and rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “Damn…y’know…this does feel kinda familiar…”
Carter followed his gaze back to the dark opening of the wide doorway. “Familiar?”
“What? You see this before? When?”
He shook his head. “Not like that.” He clicked his fingers. “This is gonna sound dumb as hell…”
She smiled. Jones was a fat, sexist pig, the worst kind of crooked, asshole cop, but his hunches were almost supernatural sometimes. “Tell me, shithead.”
“You ever read any of those…uh…Red Knight books?”
“Red Knight. You never heard of that?”
He laughed. “My wife reads ’em. Shit. It’s…uh…like…detective novels, y’know? Crime.”
“I don’t read crime. I get enough of that shit at work.”
“I know. Me either. But my wife made me read a couple when we were on vacation last year. Uh…it’s, like, this private detective, y’know? Red Knight.”
“His first name’s Red, second name Knight. I told you it was dumb as hell.”
“You said your hunch was dumb as hell, actually.”
“It’s this guy, right, some fuckin’ charming stiff and he takes these cases for middle-aged broads…and it’s always, like, their friends or sisters or whatever who got murdered.”
“Yeah, it is. Real airport trash.” He pointed at the barn. “But I swear to God, I read about a murder exactly like this in one of ’em.”
Carter glanced at the barn. “You serious?”
“It might be nothin’.”
“It’s always middle-aged women though?”
“Pretty much. That’s the audience, I guess.”
“Like your wife?”
Jones nodded. “Sure.”
“You like her reading those books about some fancy private dick with an eye for chicks going through the menopause?”
“Hey, fuck you.”
“Seems kinda a strange coincidence. If it really is exactly like a murder in one of these books. Mostly it’s younger women on the receiving end of fucked up shit like this.”
“We’ll check it out.”
They made their way down the hill back to their car. A forensics van was just pulling up and, as the lab geeks climbed out, blinking in the sun, the detectives exchanged a few words with them about the scene. They stood by the car and watched them labour up the slope with their equipment, and Carter turned to Jones again. “Who wrote those books anyway?”
“Uh…” He clicked his fingers again. “Kevin somethin’? No, not Kevin. Calvin. Calvin Hammersmith.”
“Might be worth talking to him. I mean, if your theory pans out.”
“I think he lives in LA.”
“No kidding.” Carter finally unlocked the car and they climbed in, turned up the air-con and got the hell out of there.
It was near closing time, and Calvin had finally reached the end of the line of nervous-looking women, clutching copies of his latest novel to their chests. He signed the last one with a flourish and handed it back to the speechless fan. “Thanks, Marjorie. I hope you enjoy it.”
“Thank you so much, Mr Hammersmith!”
“Please, call me Calvin.”
“Calvin,” she said, sounding out the syllables. Then, with a blush and a bob of her head, she was gone, rejoining her gaggle of giggling friends as they bustled out of the bookstore with not a few backward glances at him. He leaned back and smiled to himself as he put his pen back in his top pocket. It was a nice pen. A gift from another fan some years ago. Silver-plated, a proper fountain pen. Much too good for the everyday business of writing – even if he didn’t use his Mac for everything anyway – but it was pleasant to have nice things, and it gave him pleasure to use it for things like this. It was then that he noticed another woman in the store; younger than most of the fans he’d signed books for, but with a confident, professional manner. She was attractive in a sort of lean, hard-edged way, with dark hair shorn straight to her shoulders. He didn’t hide his appraisal of her as she approached.
“Hello,” he said with his most winning smile.
She pulled out a badge. “Detective Carter, San Bernardino County PD.” She sat down in the chair opposite.
“You’re a little way out of your jurisdiction, detective,” he observed, “this is Hollywood.”
“I’m just here to ask a couple questions.”
“Then, assuming I’m not under arrest, maybe we should do that over coffee?”
She narrowed her eyes just slightly, but then nodded. “All right.”
“I know a place,” he said as he stood up.
Ten minutes later, they were sitting in a small coffee shop just a few blocks from the bookstore. It was a sunny afternoon and the palms that lined the road, visible through the window next to their table, swayed gently in a warm breeze. Los Angeles suited him. He’d never have lived here in the days when he was just a struggling author, but now he’d made his money, it was very pleasant.
“So what can I do for you, detective?” he asked as he put down his latté.
“Well, first of all, I should confess something.”
“You’re a fan?” he guessed.
“Uh…no…actually the opposite. Well, what I mean is, I never heard of you before this morning.”
He chuckled. “That’s okay. I should probably be thankful. I wouldn’t like to think the police were interested in me.”
“Oh? Any particular reason for that?”
“What? No – just a general desire to keep my head down. That’s normal, isn’t it?”
“Sure. You’re the author of the Red Knight books, is that right?”
He leant back and steepled his fingers. “For my sins.”
“Right. And these are detective fiction?”
“You haven’t read any of my novels, I take it?”
“Like I said, I never heard of you before this morning.”
“Yes, they’re detective fiction. The main character is Red Knight, a dashing private investigator based in rural Nebraska.”
“Uh huh.” She didn’t sound particularly interested.
“What is this about, detective?”
“This is going to sound a little crazy, but I just came here from the scene of a murder in a farm just outside Yucca Valley.” She pointed out of the window with her thumb. “Out east. And, it might be nothing, but my partner seems to think some of the details of the killing were awful similar to one in one of your books.”
Calvin couldn’t hide his shock. “Are you serious?”
“You saw my badge.” She took a sip of her own coffee. A black americano.
He leant in and lowered his voice. “Well…can you give me any more details?”
“A middle-aged widow, living alone.”
“That…doesn’t narrow it down much…”
He smiled slightly. “I have my niche, detective.”
“Sure. She was killed in what we’d describe as a ritualistic manner. We think she was probably tortured for sometime beforehand. Weird symbols carved into her. It was pretty gruesome.”
“I’m sure. And it does sound very familiar. In fact, it sounds just like what happened to the victim in ‘House of Cards’.”
“House of Cards…?”
“The sixth Red Knight novel. Sorry, you’re not familiar with my work, I forgot – almost everyone I meet knows exactly who I am. One of the difficulties of being a successful author.”
She gave him a smile that didn’t touch her eyes. “Of course. Could you maybe summarise the plot for me?”
“Well I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise in case you…uh…” he trailed off at her flat stare. “Well, Red Knight is commissioned to investigate the death of a…well…of a widow killed in, I suppose, much the same circumstances you describe. It turns out he’s chasing an old enemy of his from when he worked for the police, a detective gone bad who goes by the name of Martin Blackjack.”
“Blackjack,” Carter said carefully.
“Like cards, you know.” He mimed dealing. “It’s sort of a theme.”
“Red Knight and Blackjack.” She sounded thoroughly unimpressed.
“Well, the novel’s called House of Cards. It’s really the first in a series of encounters that Red has with this particular nemesis. The next one is Card Sharp, then it’s Red Card, and then…”
She held up her hands. “I get it. He’s Moriarty to your Holmes, right?”
He pointed. “Exactly!”
“Listen, this could just be a coincidence,” she said, “but if someone is getting inspiration from your novels, you could be in real danger.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Maybe. We still have to get information back from forensics. Then we’ll know more about who did this, hopefully. Do you have any obsessive fans that you know of?”
“Plenty. But, to be frank, none I’d think would be capable of murder. You saw the ladies in the bookstore.”
“Like that? You’re the detective, but I’ve studied real-life homicides – you don’t make the kind of money I have without doing your homework – and this doesn’t sound like the work of a housewife.”
“Maybe not. But if this hunch does pan out, I may be calling on you again. I’d rather not go through your publicist if it comes to that. Is there a personal number I can reach you on?”
He grinned and reached into his jacket pocket, producing a business card. “Always happy to give my number to a beautiful lady.”
She took it and gave him a cold smile. “Thanks, Mr Hammersmith.”
She drained the last of her coffee and left him with a brief nod. He watched her leave, wondering why the idea of someone out there imitating the brutal murders in his books didn’t worry him in the slightest. “Maybe because I’m not a middle-aged woman,” he mused to himself. He had a niche, all right. He was about to stand up when he caught the eye of another woman sitting across the coffeehouse. She was a little older than Detective Carter perhaps, clutching a bag from the bookstore he’d just been signing in and with a sullen boy of about ten or eleven in tow. As he returned her hopeful smile, she approached him, moving in a low bob like he was a wild animal she might scare off. “Excuse me, Mr Hammersmith?”
“Hello there,” he said in his most dazzling tone. “You look familiar – did I sign a book for you this afternoon?”
She looked amazed and flattered that he’d remember her. As if this encounter was anything but calculated. “Yes, yes…my name’s Ellie. Ellie Purcell.” She extended her hand and he took it in a gentle but firm grip. “I’m sorry,” she went on, “I didn’t want to interrupt you when you were with…your…uh…your girlfriend.” The last word wasn’t quite a question.
“Not my girlfriend. Just another fan, like you.” He pointed at her bag. “I don’t suppose you’ve had the chance to read it yet.”
“Oh no, no I’ll save it for when I get home. I’m looking forward to it though.” She placed a hand on her chest. “I’m sorry, I know you must get this all the time, but I’m just your biggest, biggest fan. You have such a gift.”
“Nonsense. You should see the pages I throw away!”
She let out a tinkling laugh at that. As she turned away for a moment to attend to something her son was saying, he took a moment to look her over. She was attractive, soft where Carter had been lean, but with a figure she obviously took some care of. She looked fairly affluent, as most of his readership were. Find a rut and stay in it; that was always his motto. “I’m sorry,” she said again, “I’m disturbing you. I’ll let you…”
“Not at all,” he interrupted smoothly, “I was thinking of getting another coffee. Won’t you join me, if you have the time? I’d love to hear what you think of some of my other books.”
“Of course.” He held out a hand.
“You don’t mind…” she gestured vaguely at her child.
“Why would I?” He smiled at the boy. “What’s your name?”
“Do you like magic tricks, Sam?” The boy nodded shyly and, with a brief flourish, Calvin flashed a deck of cards out of his sleeve. “Maybe I’ll show you some tricks later, huh? Would you like that?” Sam was enraptured. Ellie beamed at him, and he stood up. “So, to drink?” he asked as he spread his hands and the cards seemed to disappear into thin air.
“Find out anything good?” Jones asked as he took a big bite from a gyro he’d just bought from a cart on the corner of an intersection. Garlic sauce was dribbling down his stubbly chin.
Carter gave him a look of open disgust. “Do you have to do that?”
“Do what?” he asked innocently.
“Honestly…you know you’re going to die of a fuckin’ heart attack one day?”
“Unless I get shot first,” he replied with a smirk. He wiped his chin with his sleeve. “Anyway, how was the writer guy?”
“A complete creep.” They started to walk back towards the car.
“What did you expect?”
“I’unno. He might have been a little more subtle when he checked me out across the room, I guess.”
“Didn’t you like it?”
“I’m young enough to be his fuckin’ daughter.”
Jones gave her an appraising glance. “I wouldn’t go that far…”
“Fuck you. Anyway, he was gross. A smarmy rich dude.”
“S’why I said you oughta go alone. Worked, didn’t it?”
“I got a free coffee out of it. He talked about his dumb books. He spotted the link right away, so maybe there really is something in it. I asked if he had any crazy fans.”
“Like, a million of ’em.” Jones finished his meal and dropped the greasy napkin on the sidewalk before wiping his hands on his jacket. “Ain’t gonna narrow it down.”
“Yeah, he said the same thing. But he was right about one thing.”
“His readership are all women. I don’t think a woman did that back in the barn.”
“No,” Jones agreed, “not in my experience.”
“We need to buy some of his books,” Carter sighed as they reached the car.
“Bookstore’s back that way,” Jones said, pointing back over his shoulder with his thumb.
“Ugh…no way. I might run into him again.”
“I’ll say I’m your husband. He’ll back off.”
“Yeah, that’s even worse. You said your old lady had all his books, right?”
“So let’s swing by your place on the way back to the station.”
“She hates you.”
Carter smirked as she unlocked the car. “Maybe that’s because you keep trying to tell people I’m your wife?”
After an hour spent trying to escape LA and a brief detour back to casa de Jones, they were back in the station, unpacking a big pile of books from a box. The other detectives gave them dubious glances as Carter perched on the edge of her desk, leafing through one of them. “What is this shit?”
“It may be shit, but it’s shit that sells.” Jones held up another book and tapped a finger against a line of embossed text on the cover. “See that? New York Times Best Seller. Mucho dinero. I can’t believe all you got from this guy was coffee, ambitious girl like you.”
“Fuck off.” She frowned at the book she was holding. It was a much-thumbed paperback, the spine cracked and worn. The cover depicted chess pieces, splattered with blood, and the silvery, phallic shape of a magnum spilling bullets suggestively beside them, all laid out on a red and black chessboard. “‘Knight’s Quest’,” she read out. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”
“Hey, the missus loves that book.” He was sitting at the work station opposite, a bombsite of files, unread memos and messages and, somewhere underneath it all, a computer. His feet were up on the desk and, in one of the few patches of free space on its surface, a filthy coffee mug was seemingly stuck in place. He was dipping a lump of frosted donut into its sludgy depths.
“I can see that.” She put it down with a look of distaste and dug in the box for more. “Look, it’s all the same crap. Chess pieces and playing cards and…a dartboard? C’mon! And every title is some sort of stupid pun and there’s blood everywhere and…” She held up a book with a bloody knife crossed with a red rose, and a chess knight looming ominously in the background. “What is this? ‘Knight’s Watch’? Where does he get this shit?”
“You’re just jealous. I wish I could get paid for spewing out the same fuckin’ story over and over. It’s easy money.”
“Maybe.” Carter tossed a few of the books aside, and then came across the one she was looking for. “Here it is – ‘House of Cards’. That’s the one where he first meets…uh…Blackjack?”
“I thought you never read these.”
“Hammersmith couldn’t wait to educate me on his work…” She leafed through the book slowly. “Jeez, this is some real shit.”
“What do you know?”
“Hey, I majored in English. I know shit when I read it.”
“Community college don’t count.”
“You two starting a book group?” a voice asked, and they both turned to see Lieutenant Coburn looming over them, her arms folded and a dubious expression on her face.
“Oh…sorry, lieutenant,” Carter said, hopping down from her desk and instinctively straightening her jacket. She never liked to look stupid in front of Coburn, a woman whose impressive rise through the ranks of homicide had been the inspiration for her own career trajectory so far. “We’re working on a lead in the barn killing from this morning.”
“You think a librarian did it?” she asked with an arched eyebrow.
“Classic copy-cat killer,” Jones explained, his mouth full of soggy donut. Carter had never known him to show deference to anyone, least of all Coburn.
“Really.” The lieutenant’s flat tone made it clear she wasn’t convinced. She picked up a book. “The Red Knight guy?”
“You read this stuff?” Carter asked, unable to hide her surprise.
“My ex-,” Coburn said, with the acidic disdain she always injected into any discussion about her former girlfriend. “Trash.” She dropped the book back into the box. “Don’t you think you should be doing some real police work?”
“Well…” Carter exchanged a glance with Jones.
“It’s a decent lead,” her partner insisted. “Hannah spoke to the author. He was in Hollywood this afternoon. Could be a crazy fan. We’re gonna look into it, until the labs give us something, y’know?”
“We got no witnesses,” Carter went on, “no one around for miles. No money, no kids. It’s just a random killing. Chances are we’ll never catch the guy.”
“We figure we might as well see where this goes until we mark it another unsolved,” Jones added with a shrug.
“Nice to see this department is still staffed with optimists,” Coburn observed dryly. “Keep me in the loop, but…” she tapped the cover of the nearest book with one manicured fingernail, “…don’t waste too much time on this, okay?”
“I never ‘waste’ time on anything,” Jones told her back as she walked away. He grunted as he pulled another donut out of the box.
Carter remained standing, but she picked up House of Cards and flicked idly through it. After a short while she held it up, open at a page. “This is the murder,” she said.
She leaned across their desks, passing the book over to Jones. He rested the half-eaten donut on his gut and wiped his fingers on his shirt before taking it from her. He frowned down at the page for a couple of minutes. “Yep,” he finally announced before handing it back. “Sure looks like it. Middle-aged dame in a barn, all cut up. Blood everywhere.”
Carter read the passage back again. “This is some fucked up shit.”
“It’s a crime novel,” Jones shrugged.
“Yeah, but even so…I didn’t expect it to be this graphic. He seemed so…well, not charming, exactly…but, y’know…controlled. Refined.”
“S’always the quiet ones, ain’t it?”
“Maybe. Hm.” She put the book down. “Why pick this one?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s written dozens of these things. This isn’t the first in the series.”
“S’the first one where he meets Martin Blackjack,” Jones pointed out.
“Sure. But still, for an obsessive fan it seems strange to start there. Hm…” She tapped a finger against her chin. “The murders in the other books, are they usually similar?”
“Everything in these things is similar. It’s, like, the same story over and over. He just makes a couple changes. They eat it right up.”
“If there’s a killer taking inspiration from these novels…what are the chances this isn’t their first rodeo?”
“You think there’s more like this one?”
“Maybe,” Carter said, “we have an entire set of cabinets packed with the files of unsolved murders. And that’s just in this county. Let’s check the database, see if we can find any more murders that read like something from a shitty Red Knight novel.”
Jones eyed the pile of books. “How you gonna check through all of these to see if there’s any matches?”
Carter tossed House of Cards back into the box. “If we turn up any leads, I’m gonna get Coburn to sign off the Kindle versions on expenses. No way I’m spending a week flicking through your old lady’s dressed up porno.”
“Hey, this ain’t…” Jones picked up the nearest book, which had a cover depicting the eponymous red knight chess piece hovering over the tops of two queens with their telltale bobbles almost quivering under the suggestive layer of red fluid dripping down their rounded heads. “Yeah…fair point.”